Critical Questions Series 3: Category Formation and “Eastern” Traditions


by Steven Ramey

Question: The varieties of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto, along with the “Indigenous traditions” of Asia and the Pacific Islands, are commonly referred to as “Eastern” in the taxonomies of most introductory textbooks. What is your sense of where these categories stand today? How do you grapple with issues of category formation in the study of religion that have been historically filtered through a Euro-western lens? How does your own identity factor into the equation?

The categories Eastern and Western are European constructions that generalize about a diverse range of activities and conceptions and reinforce problematic stereotypes. Therefore, many scholars avoid those simplistic designations. However, contemporary scholarship also questions the categories of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc., for similar reasons. While scholars disagree on exactly who constructed these labels and when it happened, few see these labels referring to a defined collection of beliefs and practices from the time of the earliest texts or practices that people commonly associate with them. These labels are historical constructions that generalize about a wide range of activities that do not necessarily have much in common. Yet, many scholars who avoid the East/West dichotomy continually reinforce these labels that are similarly problematic.

When someone uses the East/West dichotomy, many scholars are particularly attuned to what work those terms do for the person using them, because most scholars do not see the terms as neutral descriptors. Scholars should employ a similar approach with labels used for presumably distinct religions. Scholars should avoid applying the labels, as it is not the scholar’s role to determine the exact boundaries and what is included within them. Analyzing what people mean when they use these labels and what purposes the labels serve for them are more significant academic questions.

While scholars can address the role of such terms in their own research, other institutional forces remain. Therefore, when teaching a course such as World Religions, the objective should be a critique of the discourse of World Religions rather than primarily teaching the data within that discourse. I have found, though, that assigning and analyzing a traditional textbook is a useful strategy. The textbook represents one version of the common public discourse, at least in relation to the existence of distinct religions. It is difficult for students to enter a critique of the discourse when they have only heard some of these labels in a limited fashion. In my experience, many undergraduates can engage and find this critique fascinating, even in entry level courses. In this way, pedagogy reflects the best of research and trains students not to memorize the details of a constructed, generalized Hinduism but to hone skills of critical analysis from the beginning of their time in college.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, where he also directs the Asian Studies program. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where his work focused on contemporary religions and identity in India. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave 2008) analyzes issues of identity within Sindhi Hindu communities. 

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